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In the many comments on the post re the Wigan game there were a number that said that we should recognise that Wenger and his youth project had failed. One in particular caught my eye: it said that it was harder to recognise this and face it than it was simply to sit at home and say, “Wenger is great”. But recognise it we should.
As it happened I was away over the weekend, and not in Wigan, so I didn’t see the match – I watched it in a pub. But having read this before setting out on the long journey home late on Sunday evening, I thought about this. Four big points came up as I pondered, and if you have a moment I would like to share them with you.
First: is Arsenal now in failure mode?
Certainly if your approach is to say that winning trophies is success, then clearly we have failed. Apart from the Youth Cup last year, the Championship of the Youth Team with about two months to spare this year, and the inevitable double of the Women’s Team each year (which I suspect most readers won’t count) we have not been winning things. So on that basis yes a failure.
But there are other criteria. Others will of course disagree with me, but the fact that we have played in the Champs League for each of the past, what is it, ten years? is a success for me. I think only two other teams have done this.
That means consistently being in the top four clubs in what is considered the hardest league in the world.
I don’t mean to say that I am satisfied and don’t want more, but I find there is a land of difference between utterly satisfied (the Unbeaten Season, the Double Seasons) and total dissatisfaction (Bruce Rioch’s season, the endless years of winning nothing before the 1971 double…) It is a period in which I am not totally satisfied, but I feel good about where we are and what we are doing. I see better times ahead.
So I personally don’t feel that we are in failure mode. If you do, fair enough, its your view, and as I have said many times before I won’t cut out your comments if you choose to come here. But you must recognise that there are many other sites where the editors and regular writers are much more in line with your thinking.
Second, are we doing more than hanging on? Put another way, are we moving towards a better future?
I certainly think so, because I think the youth project is working, and because I look at the clubs around us, and consider what they are up to.
I’ll deal with the youth project in a moment, but for now, I want to talk about context. It is one of the concepts that I think is often ignored, and that I feel leads to a distorted view.
The current climate is one in which two teams can spend anything on any player they want, while other teams have tried to stay on top by spending money they don’t have. Others again in an attempt to get the money have opened themselves up to financial disaster by believing in people who come riding in promising the earth.
Arsenal has not gone down any of these routes, has built a magnificent stadium and training ground, has set up a network of spies across the world, and has made a profit each year.
Now this to me is important. I genuinely believe that many of the clubs in the EPL are about to collapse and do a Leeds and a Portsmouth. I know the regular view is that Man U is too big to go bust, and that the Red Knights will rescue them – but when I look and see that the man running the Red Knights is at Goldman Sachs (under FSA investigation), and I look at the level of debt, I don’t believe it.
Everything is of course down to one’s own analysis – but I do think one should give a reasoned answer as to why Arsenal should have followed the Man U, the Man C or the Tottenham model – or come to that the Aston Villa model.
My point is that all these models have failed. The one that might look ok is the Chelsea/Man C model – but here there is still no response to the Uefa rulings on club finances other than to say “we don’t agree, and we reject them”. The EPL takes that view (especially over the benefactor rule) but still nothing is moving. As matters stand, if Man C / Chelsea continue to buy players from owner money, after next season they will not qualify for the Champs League.
So, in answer to “are we doing more than hanging on?” I would say yes – we are a top club, and the only club in the EPL that is ready for the new financial realities, and is regularly in the top four. I would say that if you wish to judge Wenger properly you need to answer not just the success/failure question, but also a question that takes into effect the financial realities.
Third – the youth project. Success or failure?
In fact there are two youth projects. One involves bringing in young players from other clubs, nurturing them for a few years, maybe sending out on loan, and then either selling them at a profit because they don’t make it, or gradually bringing them into the first team.
The other involves bringing kids through from the age of 11 at Arsenal, and then as they mature, introducing them into the first team.
The latter of these two projects only started in earnest about seven years ago. We had a youth system before that but it was not, for whatever reason, really successful at bringing many youngsters through.
However the group who won the youth double last season, and ran away with the youth league this year, were quite different. I read that 9 of the 11 who were on the field for the youth cup final last season had been together since the age of 11. They are now 17 and 18, and are looking to break forward into the first team. That group are too young to have had much influence yet, but if you look at them you will see an astonishing achievement with them, with an amazing future to come.
So on the basis of bringing in 11 year olds and picking real talent, I think yes, we have success.
Let’s look at the players we bring in and nurture for a smaller number of years. Among such players at the moment we might consider…
Although some of these players were recognised when we bought them, none of them were major names of the type other clubs tend to buy. As such they were not ready to slot into the team the moment we got them, but we have seen signs since that they may well become very good players. Some of course have now matured into brilliant players.
I think that is one hell of a list. Even if you are unhappy with a few of them – noting perhaps that Bendtner doesn’t work enough, Diaby is erratic, Denilson is lightweight, etc (and those are not my views) the fact is that we have brought these players through – and even if you take the doubts out it is a great list.
So if we combine the group that joined us around 11 years of age (the Jay Emmanuel Thomas gang) and the players who we brought in from elsewhere and who are making it through, I am not sure that the youth system is not working.
Fourth – the balance of youth and age isn’t right
This is the bit where the injuries have taken us apart. Something like seven of our regular key players were out of the Wigan game, and six out of the Tottenham game. And not just any old players. The often cited spine of the team is an issue here: Fabregas, Arshavin, Van Persie, Gallas, Vermaelen, Ramsey, Song all lost to us. Eduardo, still only a shadow of his former glory.
No, the balance of the team was not right for those games, because of the injuries.
We have now had 3 consecutive years of these injuries, and I think Arsene Wenger is now recognising that he has to assume that this change over the last three years is going to continue.
I saw one correspondent say that we get the injuries because they are injuries to youngsters – and youngsters get injured more easily. I think not – Van Persie, Arshavin, Gallas, Vermaelen – these are not youngsters.
No, the injury issue comes from the change in tactics of the lesser clubs who have moved to Zero Football, and the increase in speed of the game. It is that combination that leads to the injuries – and so we need a bigger squad. It was not something we could have recognised before.
Fifth, in evaluating whether everything is a failure there must be a perspective.
We had a run of seven victories, and then we stumbled, as the injury crisis just got worse and worse, day by day. So we lost to Tottenham and Wigan at a time when we were not going to win the league.
Not nice. Not welcome, but hardly enough to say, this is the end, we are useless, Wenger must go, his whole project has failed.
I don’t think it has failed at all. And here’s the positive side
1. We are financially viable and we are meeting the Uefa financial rules
2. We do have a successful youth policy with a lot of players coming through who are stunning and brilliant.
3. We have the money to go out and buy players, as I suspect we will this year. Players who will overcome the problems we have faced through the unprecedented rise in injuries caused by Zero Football. That will remove that problem.
4. We have the continuity of time in the top levels of the EPL and Champs League that mean that we are ready to compete.
I do however have one worry.
The hysteria at not winning the league last season was disgraceful, and resulted in those of us who have a positive view of Wenger’s approach running a march through the streets to demonstrate in the final match against Stoke.
We now have the same hysteria again, and I fear that ultimately the negative views might persuade Wenger to move on, or simply retire. If that happens suddenly and not in a planned way, I do fear for the club, because I just can’t see who has got the ability to run the club and keep us profitable.
And this really is my point. We need the profit. Although Ferguson and others are excellent managers who can win things, to do it they need massive sums to spend endlessly. If Wenger were to go, we would have a manager like that, the debt would pile up, and sooner or later, we would be in the state of those around us – utterly broke and/or unable to meet Uefa financial regulations.
Occasionally I amuse myself (usually very late at night) thinking that maybe someone close to Mr Wenger might actually read the positive words that are put here, and pass them on to the top man. If they ever do, I do hope they tell him, there are a lot of us out here who believe he is the greatest thing ever to happen to this club. Greater than Norris who created the club, paid for Highbury, and brought in Chapman. Greater than Chapman who gave us our first trophies. Greater than Allison who gave us such success.
I would like those who think Wenger must go, to read the history of Herbert Chapman, and to remember that he arrived in 1925 (I think – as I said it is late at night) and didn’t start winning championships until 1931. Just remember that. He almost left, before he delivered.
Great revolutions can take time. And yes, it could all be so easily thrown away.